Recently I got back from spending a week in Kenya, most of it in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. It had been 3 1/2 years since I’d been to Kenya, and I was eager to see how our friends were doing. Though we’d been in contact with many of them, it’s much better to be able to physically see how people are doing than to just be told. Plus it’s the unspoken things that really tell the stories.
Some things had changed. More of the roads in Kibera are now paved, keeping down a bit of the mud and dust, but the trash problem has not gotten any better. Many of the children in the daycare are new, but that’s to be expected, as children get older and start going to school and are replaced by younger ones.
What didn’t change was the absolute beauty of the people in Kibera. As I came from a nation where material things are so important to people, but unhappiness and loss of purpose is rampant, I am reminded that there is as much blessing in not having what you don’t need as there is in having what you do need. The words of Proverbs 30 are brought to mind.
“Two things I ask of You—
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me.
Give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the bread that is my portion.
Otherwise, I may have too much
and deny You, saying, “Who is the LORD?”
Or I may become poor and steal,
profaning the name of my God.”
Before we think we have it better, look at the joy on the faces of the people of Kibera and remind ourselves that joy doesn’t come from what is outside.
Just a short post today, as I’m still in the field in Kenya. we came back to check on some friends we haven’t seen in three and a half years. I’m happy to report that they are doing well. The daycare that Pastor Obedi and has wife Helen run under very difficult circumstances is also doing well.
I’m looking forward to what the future brings for them and those kids, and I’ll be writing about some of that in the future. But for tonight I’m just going to post some pictures from the last couple days.
In just a couple of weeks, I head back to Kibera, Kenya. A group of four men will be going to minister in the largest urban slum in Africa. We’ll be going back to catch up with some good friends we haven’t seen in a long time.
It occurred to me today that I used to post a lot more pictures than I have been lately. I am a professional photographer, after all. So for those following my journey, here are some pictures from previous trips to see Pastor Obedi and His wife Helen in Kibera.
In six days I leave for Ethiopia. Each time I go to Africa, I have to reassess what I’m carrying with me. Did I use it last time? How much use was it to me? Is there something better I could be using next time?
This is my tenth trip to Africa in less than seven years. I’m a missionary, and on most trips (though not this one) my primary purpose is documentation. You may have other reasons for shooting, but the basic equipment list will be the same, except for the choice of lenses. Over the years, my equipment list has changed and I believe it has become more efficient. Efficiency is key, because most, if not all of my photographic and video equipment is carried on my person when I travel. Whether my gear is insured or not, there are certain airports I travel through where the baggage handlers seem to have particularly sticky fingers. The best prevention for theft is to never let your gear out of your sight. The bag I carry is small enough to fit in either the overhead compartment or under the seat on any plane I’ve ever boarded. With that, I’m going to go through my equipment list. Keep in mind, the type of shooting I’m doing is fairly unusual. I shoot mainly with prime lenses, so I tend to be heavier on lenses than most people will be. Nevertheless, everything going into my carry-on bag comes in at about 11 kilos, not including the tripod, which I carry as a personal item. By the way, I’m not endorsed or sponsored by any of the products I use, so if I mention it, it’s because it works well for me, and not because I’ve been bought.
My backpack is a Clik Elite Escape. I’ve had it for a few years now, and it’s held up far better than any bag I’ve used before. The previous one I used was a brand I won’t mention, and if fell apart on the first trip.
Yellow Fever Card. This is required to enter a number of developing nations.
Memory cards and holder. Your memory needs will vary. I shoot a lot of 4k video, so I need large, fast cards.
Canon G1X. This is my backup camera for when I’m trying to be discreet. It has roughly an APS-C size sensor, so I get far sharper pictures than most small cameras.
Canon 5D Mk IV. Shoots 30 megapixel images as well as 4K video (or 5.5K video if you have the upgrade.) The quality is excellent, though it is a memory hog. Attached is a 70-200 mm f4 Canon L image stabilized lens. I choose the f4 lens because it weighs about half of what the 2.8 version does.
Canon 135 mm f2 L lens. I shoot a lot of portraits and expressions, and this is the one for that.
Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens. This is possibly my favorite lens.
Sigma 20 mm f1.4 Art lens. Truly an astounding lens.
10 stop neutral density filter.
velcro zip strips, for fastening things together on the go. Zip ties are useful also.
Extra batteries for both cameras, as well as an extra set of AA batteries.
Disposable lens cleaning cloths.
Remote trigger for the 5D Mk IV.
Oben carbon fiber tripod with Giottos fluid video head. It’s very light weight, and I’ve developed a technique for using it as a steadicam with the larger camera. With the video head, you can’t shoot vertical, but when’s the last time you shot a vertical on a tripod?
Shotgun microphone. (Don’t rely on your camera’s built in mic.)
Rode wireless mic setup, for doing interviews or if I need to voiceover a video while I shoot.
Zipper bag to hold most of the stuff on the right. Toiletries, bug spray, stomach medication, antibiotics, superglue (for stitching injuries, not other stuff), ace bandage, antibiotic ointment (incredibly hard to find overseas), wet wipes (a God send when you’re traveling), band-aids (plasters to you Brits), hand sanitizer, and a contact lens case to keep small quantities of loose medication (space saver).
International electrical power inverter with adapters for different plugs.
An extra set of clothes for either traveling or if they lose your luggage. You don’t want to get where you’re going in the tropics and have only the clothes on your back. They will eventually evolve a rudimentary intelligence and walk off on their own.
(Not shown) iPad Air 2. This is lighter than a computer, and allows me to wirelessly sync photos from my camera. The hard drive is not large enough for backing up photos, but allows me to transfer the ones I need for my writing. I recommend loading up communication apps such as Facebook Messenger, Viber, or Skype for communication back home. You should also load up a virtual private network (VPN) both for security issues on public wi-fi, but also because it helps bypass censorship issues in certain nations.
Headphones, both for listening to music but also for monitoring video.
(Not shown) iPad Air 2. Lighter than a laptop. I use this for writing, blogging, and communication back home. Load up communication apps such as Facebook Messenger, Skype, or Viber. Also, it’s good to load up a Virtual Private Network (VPN), both for security on public wi-fi, but also to get around censorship issues in some countries. I can also sync the iPad with my camera. It doesn’t have a large enough hard drive to back up files, but I can move over the pictures I’d like to edit for blogging.
(Not shown) iPhone 5. This has a removable sim-card, so you can buy a local one for communication in whatever country you are in.
So that’s all of it. There are of course variations you’ll have. For instance, many people will get away carrying a couple of zoom lenses rather than all the lenses I’m carrying, but again, that’s just my style. Also, sometimes I need to carry a second SLR camera body. This has served me well though. Hopefully this was helpful.
I had a lot of thoughts on my mind lately; a lot of heavy thoughts. I decided to throw them all out and write about my upcoming trip to Kenya instead. After all, this blog doesn’t always have to heavy.
In just a few weeks, I leave for Kenya. This will be my eighth trip to Africa since 2010, and the frequency of the trips has only increased. It’s now at least twice a year. Nevertheless, this trip will be full of firsts. This will be the first time I am going to Kenya when I’m not either just stopping through on the way to somewhere else or taking a partial vacation. I will be doing ministry in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Though I’ve been to Africa several times, this is the first time I will be leading a team. There will be three people traveling with me, and two of them have never been to Africa before. My wife has only been once. To be honest, it makes me a little nervous, because I have more responsibility on my shoulders. I am fine with nervousness though. Everything that is worth doing comes with some risk, and the rewards are eternal. I know also that my nervousness will be nothing compared to that of my fellow travelers. I am looking forward to seeing that look on their faces the first time they step off the plane in Nairobi to the sights and sounds, and ah yes, the smells of Africa. I am looking forward to this because I remember the first time for me; for the awestruck wonder usually reserved for children but nonetheless granted to me one more time. I’m excited for them because I have some idea of what’s in store for them even if they don’t. I’m excited for the life changing epiphany that awaits them if their eyes are open even a little.
This is also the first time I will be going to Africa when photography will not be my main function. Yes, I will still be doing that, but I will have to put the camera down a lot more and do tasks which I may not be accustomed to. A year ago, when I was in Ethiopia, an African pastor prophesied over me as he prayed, saying I would be given new skills that would be used all over East Africa. Now is that time, and I will keep that in mind when I feel I am being stretched past my limits. New abilities don’t normally just drop into your lap. They form when we are pushed past what we have already become comfortable with into the realm of what might be possible. There are no participation trophies. I am looking forward to what is hard, knowing that what is hard now will not be as hard later. I’m looking forward to becoming more capable, even if it involves making mistakes. As I read in a book recently, “God cares more about the worker than the work.” I think this is a true statement.
I intend to be giving updates on our upcoming trip while in Kenya, including pictures. Thankfully I will have good internet access in the evenings. I also hope to be able to write about my team members’ first impressions while they are still fresh. I’m looking forward to that. One last note, I wanted to congratulate my friend Peter in South Sudan, who’s wife brought a joyous new life into the world last week.
For those wishing to follow my travels, and see the parts of Africa the tourists never see, you can follow this blog, and you’ll receive an email each time there’s a new post. Until next time.
In my last post I wrote a bit about agreements. It’s been a while since I’ve written, but the subject is still on my mind. Now that I’ve become aware of it, I have become more able to see what kind of agreements people make (including me) that we shouldn’t enter into.
In the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Tommy is telling the others about how he met with the devil at a crossroads and agreed to give up his soul in exchange for being able to play the guitar. Delmar responds with, “You sold your ever loving soul to the devil for that?” To which Tommy responds, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”
The agreements we make are frequently not made so explicitly, but they are made nonetheless. I’m finding that most of the agreements we make are made not because we met with the devil at a crossroads, but because bad things enter our lives, and rather than fight them, we become comfortable with them over time, until we finally fail to see them at all. Then, even when we are given an opportunity to be free of what plagues us, we’re so comfortable with our affliction that we choose not to give it up.
This blog is mostly about Africa and missions, so let me give you an example from that vein. I will shortly be going back to Kibera, Kenya. I’ve been to a lot of places in Africa that seem hopeless, but Kibera is possibly the worst. The filth alone is enough to completely overwhelm. People live (and I use that word loosely) on less than two dollars a day. Disease is rampant. Sewage runs between all the shacks. Children are abandoned during the day as mothers go out looking for work. There are constant fires because of electrical shorts from spliced wiring as people steal electricity from neighbors. Garbage has literally formed layers like a geological feature that you can see from the past hundred years. When you ask people what they have hope for, they literally come up with nothing because hope is a distant relative that died a long time ago. For some people poverty is a temporary thing; a temporary setback until they are able to get back on their feet. Kibera’s poverty is something much worse. It’s poverty that is over 100 years old. It’s no longer simply a lack of resources, it’s now a pervading state of mind. It’s old, generational poverty.
Many people living in Kibera do not have what it takes to extricate themselves from the slum, but some do. These are probably the saddest cases, because they have made an agreement that Kibera, as bad as it is, is ok. The first time I was in Kibera, after about forty five minutes, I literally felt like I needed to get out. From that point to being so comfortable with it that you decide not to leave even if you can is almost unfathomable to me.
Now, I’m going to preface my next statements by saying that I have a real problem with prosperity doctrine, which is unfortunately popular both in the United States and Kenya. It teaches basically that if you have enough faith, God will bless you and make you rich. I could go on for an entire blog about how this is wrong both scripturally and in the real world, but I won’t. While I don’t believe it is God’s intention to make us rich, I do believe he cares for us as his own children, which we are. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11. ““Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11: 11-13
The bible frequently talks about how we will suffer along with Christ if we follow him, but if we realize that we are beloved children of God, when he sends the opportunity to be freed from bondage and suffering, it hardly makes sense to then say, “No, that’s ok. I’m good”. While we are called to suffer with Christ, we are not called to make agreements with the devil simply for the sake of taking on suffering. “My marriage is bad, but it’s ok.” “I live in filth, but it’s ok.” “My children are starving, but that’s just life.” These are all agreements from the pit of hell. Something I have been learning is that I don’t pray big enough. I pray for something but cut short the full extent of what I need, or the needs of someone I’m praying for. When you realize you’re praying to an infinite God, it suddenly seem stupid to put limitations on your prayers. I met an Ethiopian pastor recently who said “I always pray for something, then double it.” He’s not praying for riches, he’s praying for the lost to be saved, for the captives to be set free, and for a bit of God’s kingdom to show up here on Earth. The first step in that process is to stop accepting the physical, spiritual, and mental squalor that we have agreed to live in.
As I was thinking about all the posts I’ve done about Africa, photography, and missions. I’ve done posts on the people I’ve met and the broader concepts of all things related to Africa, but I’ve never published a post about the landscape of Africa. When people think of Africa, they usually think of herds of animals on the grasslands with the occasional Acacia tree breaking up the horizon. Sure, there’s that aspect of Africa, but there is so much more to it than that. There are jungles, scrublands, deserts, big cities, mountains, even glaciers. Today I decided to feature some of the landscapes I’ve seen on my travels in East Africa. These are all from South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya, so you can imaging all there is to see in the other fifty or so counties. I’ve specifically tried to exclude people from these shots to focus on the landscapes, but there are some. Let these give you a sense of place, and please enjoy them. All can be clicked on for a larger view.
Every once in a while I like to give some practical advice to people who might be taking a trip to Africa, particularly those who are going primarily to take pictures. Well, 108 blogs later, I’ve finally decided to do a comprehensive breakdown of how I pack my carry-on bag. I start with the attitude that if the airline loses my check-in bag, I could still continue on with my trip without much inconvenience. As such, I only pack in my check-in bag extra clothing, toiletries, and medication that I can live without should the airline lose them. In fact, I’ve traveled to Africa on a few occasions without actually checking a bag. Traveling light is the key, because the more you have to carry, the more difficulty you will have getting around, and the more you will miss. I travel with a minimal amount of clothing, but mostly stick with synthetic materials and bring a small bottle of detergent so that I can wash clothing by hand every two or three days. Synthetics also dry much faster. The following image shows the contents of my photo backpack laid out. The bag is a Clik Elite. I’ve used other bags in the past and found that for the hard use I give them, they tended to break down to the point that my heavy lenses were all sitting in the bottom of the bag after a long day of walking. (I am not endorsed by Clik Elite.) The Clik Elite bag gets dirty, but it holds up to a beating.
1. Canon 5D Mk2 SLR camera. 21 megapixels which is plenty should I need to crop the picture later. It’s been beaten up, gotten wet, been in the dust, and still takes great pictures.
2. 4 lenses. My two primary lenses are a Canon 135 mm f2 for taking tight portraits, and a Sigma 35 mm f 1.4 for taking wider portraits and landscapes. These are my go-to lenses for taking those winning shots. The shallow depth of field I get and the low light capabilities make carrying these totally worth the extra weight of redundant focal length lenses. My two other lenses for more general use are a Canon 24-70 f2.8 and a Canon 70-200 f4 image stabilized lens.
3. Canon G1X Point and shoot camera. It’s small and discreet for when I have to be less conspicuous, but has an APS-C sized sensor inside for much better quality pictures than a typical point and shoot camera. It also shoots 1080p video. The camera does have its limitations though, just due to what it is.
4. Extra batteries for both cameras, as well as chargers.
5. 300 gigabytes of memory cards. At least some need to be fast enough to shoot video.
6. Oben carbon fiber tripod with ball head. This is a must if you’re going to shoot video or time exposures.
7. Camelbak All Clear bottle. This has an ultra-violet lamp built in so I can purify water should I need to. It purifies unsafe water in one minute. I drank water out of the Nile for five days without getting sick using this. I also stuff the bottle with an extra pair of clean socks and undies for traveling. (Use your space to the fullest).
8. Extra pair of pants and a fleece shirt. (It can be quite cold in the parts of Ethiopia I go to.) I also pack extra clothing into any empty spaces in the bag.
9. Ipad 64 gig (not shown). This has reading material, allows my to load pictures and write my blog while away, and has VOIP software for making phone calls when I have wi-fi overseas.
10. Adapters for linking my camera to the iPad.
11. Unlocked GSM world phone. This is a multi-band phone that I can buy a sim-card for when I get to Africa so I can make local calls. I can also call home with it when there’s no internet available but cell phone service is.
12. Passport and yellow fever card. Many countries in Africa require proof you’ve had your yellow fever immunization.
13. Power converter and adapters. Lets you plug in your US based electronics into foreign outlets.
14. Case of photo filters with polarizing filters and Neutral Density filters.
15. Disposable eyeglass wipes for cleaning lenses. Travel is too dirty to reuse a normal lens cleaning cloth.
16. Hand sanitizer.
17. Wet wipes for cleanup when there is no water available or for on the plane. (These are your best friend in Africa.)
18. Remote trigger for camera. Needed for taking long time-exposures or for discreetly triggering your camera.
19. Pain reliever. (I have plantar fasciitis which can hurt after standing all day.)
20. Bug spray. This is a necessity if you are going to areas where malaria is common.
21. Head lamp. Africa is frequently very dark.
22. Cash and credit cards. (Not shown)
What I didn’t bring but could have
1. Anti-malarial drugs. You have to weigh your risks. I’ll only be in an area with malaria for a couple days, so is it worth being on drugs with potential side effects for two days of protection? I decided not to. That’s why I have bug spray. Also, use the mosquito nets at night if you’re in an area with malaria and don’t be outside in the evening.
2. A flash. I’ve brought a flash before, but found that for my style of shooting, out of a couple thousand pictures taken, I used the flash for about 10.
So you might have a hard time believing that all that goes into the bag. I can assure you that it does. It does fit under a the seat in front of you even on a small plane, though I usually have to take the tripod off and place it beside. Weight is almost certainly over the limit, but fortunately most airlines don’t weight your carry-on bag. So here is the bag as it’s packed and ready to go. As a side note, my check-in bag is also a backpack, so that if I have to travel over distances cross country I can put one over each shoulder. Total weight for both bags is somewhere between 50 and 60 pounds.
In just two weeks I leave for Ethiopia. I remember the first time I traveled to Africa; the excitement, but also the sense of fear. The feeling of “oh dear God, what am I doing?” Things are different now. This is my seventh trip to Africa since 2010, and my third in the last eight months. There is no longer any fear involved. It’s only my second trip to Ethiopia, but I feel as if I’m going to visit an old friend. That old friend is Africa. I love the people. I love the places. I love the friends I’ve made along the road. There are people in South Sudan and Kenya in particular that I talk to on almost a daily basis, and they’ve become good friends to me.
My first trip to a country is normally where I get the lay of the land. My second and subsequent trips are when I make friends. I don’t know why that is, but that seems to be the way it plays out. Perhaps I am only able to understand the people after I’ve been there once already. Each culture is different, and it’s often hard to understand the way people think until you understand at least to a point the environment they’re coming from. Friendship only comes after understanding. So even though I made friends on my last trip to Ethiopia, it is this time that I feel I will cement those bonds. So this blog is written for my old friend Africa, for the old friends I’ve made in South Sudan and Kenya, and to the new ones I’ll make in Ethiopia.
I will be posting update blogs as I travel whenever I can, and as a photographer I will have photographs whenever bandwidth will permit. Feel free to follow this blog for email updates. I’ll be traveling into new territory, so I’ll try to be as honest with first impressions as possible. I’m not saying where I’m going yet, but will post once I’m there. Here’s a few of my friends from over the years.
I met James on my last trip to Kenya in September. He has an incredible heart for lost kids; kids estranged from their parents, kids in prison, kids estranged from God. He used to have his own television show in Kenya, but gave that up when he was presented with the ultimatum to either give up his show or give up ministering to lost kids. Here we might say we work on a shoestring budget. Jimmy has no permanent employment, and his budget is whatever God gives him through faith. This week James wrote about one of his recent trips, and his message really spoke to me, and it goes right with the spirit of this blog. When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, he asked him, “What is in your hand?” Moses had a staff, and God used it in amazing ways. In James’s hand are two sewing needles, a ball of string, a bible, and a pile of buttons. Here is James’s message from this week.
“Are We There Yet?
As I prepare to leave for ministry with our girls, I keep thinking about my trip to Baragoi. That trip changed my life, the way I look at ministry and my personal plans. It was the best way to conclude a fruitful year of ministry in 2014.
I wake up everyday with the intention of bringing a smile to the faces of the children and young people we minister to and mentor. The recipients of our programmes are children who need a lot of encouragement and opportunities. I used to have a list of people and a grand plan of how I wanted to get them involved.
Going to Baragoi had not been in my plans, in fact I had prepared to attend two weddings in our church. Yet when I heard about the trip, my mind was set and made up. I have done so many things on a zero budget. But going to Baragoi was the first time I wasn’t going to worry about provision because everything was provided. I left home with my Bible, a pair of scissors, hundreds of buttons, two balls of thread and two sewing needles. These were the tools I was going to use while ministering to children in Baragoi.
As our journey progressed, I kept asking, “Are we there yet?” Two days after leaving Nairobi I was asked to share the Word of God at the Full Gospel Church and so began my ministry. By the time we were leaving, I had run out of sewing thread and buttons. I also, reluctantly, parted ways with one of my needles after one of the mothers asked for it.
On our way back to Nairobi, God shown me how He can grow my network. Like I said before, I used to have a list of people I would like to have in my network. I still do. But after Baragoi, I have surrendered and have entrusted God with building my network.
As I was getting off the bus at Uthiru, a lady whose contacts I had been trying to get in 2014 called out to me. “From today you shall be known as Jim Buttons,” she said. “Here is my number. I would like us to talk more about your ministry with young people. May God bless your button ministry and see you soon!”
Perhaps you are a young person who desires to be used by God and your worry is provision and not knowing the right people. Or maybe you are worried about not being qualified or ready. Let me tell you something. God wants to use you – right now and right where you are – with what you have available.
I met a young woman who is now rubbing shoulders with doctors, lecturers and even politicians simply because she is willing to travel to places like Turkana, Samburu and the rest of Kenya just to deworm children and talk about nutrition.
I don’t know about you or what you are waiting for. Sign up for mission and outreach in your church, campus or let us know if you are looking for mission and outreach opportunities. Venture out and help reach out to a person that needs your smile, hug and time. Your life will never be the same again.
Look at where sewing children’s torn clothes and replacing buttons is taking me. I may lack the money I need for my big picture and vision. But at the end of the day, I have my Bible, pair of scissors, needles, thread, buttons and my passion to reach out to children. What about you? What do you have at hand?”